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March 23, 2010. 4:55 am.
Somewhere in Oakland, California
Emil Dadurian’s deep, London-accented voice broke the silence. “One moment,” he said. “I have a question for Hassan.” Ignoring the others in the room, he drew his gun and aimed it at Hassan’s forehead. “Tell me about the boy at the checkpoint. Describe him.”
The Crow and Sarkis regarded Dadurian with bafflement. Even Jamilah stopped struggling.
Hassan too was confused. He breathed deeply, trying to clear the fogginess from his mind. His left eye was badly swollen, but he stared at Dadurian with his right eye, studying his face. Finally it came to him. The conversation in the alley.
He closed his eyes and cast his mind back to a particular day, so many years ago. At first he could remember no more than what he had told Dadurian the night before. Then he recalled something he had read – that scent, sound and touch were sometimes more powerful memory cues than images. He returned to the checkpoint in his mind and started with the smell.
Hassan could smell – he couldn’t smell anything. It was summer, the air was full of pollen, and his nose was congested. His uniform chafed. In the month since he’d completed basic training he’d gone through a growth spurt, and the pants no longer fit properly.. He was sweaty, grimy and sick of working with this corrupt unit, headed by Sarkis. They were stationed on the Green Line, in the heart of chaos. Anyone who wanted to cross, Sarkis made them pay, one way or another. At times Hassan intervened, and Sarkis hated him for it. He wondered how long it would be until Sarkis put a bullet in the back of his head during a firefight.
The teenage boy and girl approached the checkpoint on foot and presented their papers. They looked nervous and frightened. Hassan saw Sarkis eye the girl in that ravenous, evil way of his, and knew there would be trouble.
Sarkis told the girl he needed to question her privately. She refused. Two of his men, knowing the routine, slipped behind the boy and restrained him as Sarkis dragged the girl away. The boy began to shout. The boy. Describe the boy…
Hassan opened his eyes and met the Armenian gunman’s intense gaze. Comprehension dawned. This was the sign he’d prayed for. Though the Armenian’s hair was now close-cropped and graying at the temples, his face had not changed much. A few lines around the mouth, a little more fat in the cheeks. Why didn’t I recognize him until now? But there had been so many faces during the war, so many tragedies, so many deaths. No one could remember them all.
“The boy had curly hair,” Hassan said softly. “I remember him shouting in Armenian and Arabic, begging and threatening. And his shirt… a weird face? Ohh… A pirate. Baseball. Pittsburgh Pirates.”
Emil Dadurian nodded his head slowly, and a look of resolve came over his face. “You saved my sister. And now I have saved your woman. We are even.”
The meaning of these words seemed to hit Sarkis suddenly. His eyes widened and he released Jamilah, reaching for his holstered weapon. “Damn you Dadurian, that was y -“ He never finished. Emil Dadurian did two things at the same time: one, he swiveled to point his gun at Sarkis Haddad, and shot him in the head. Two, he pulled a small folding knife from his pocket and tossed it in Hassan’s direction.
The gun’s report would have been deafening in an enclosed space like this, but the soundproofing panels cushioned the noise. Nevertheless, it was loud enough to stun. Jamilah screamed and stumbled backward as Sarkis’ body pitched to the ground like a rotted tree.
Without a pause, the Armenian pivoted, dropped into a crouch and fired at the Crow. The Crow’s fighting reflexes must have been dulled by too many years of standing over helpless victims in torture chambers, because Hassan saw him try to ghost, but too slowly. The bullet struck him in the hip and he fell backward.
Even as he fell, however, the Crow extended his arm, flicked his wrist and threw the scalpel he’d been holding. It flew straight and true as a crossbow bolt, striking Emil Dadurian in the eye and plunging through the orbital socket into his brain. The Armenian collapsed, dead before he hit the ground. His gun skittered across the floor.
Meanwhile, Hassan rolled onto his side and recovered the Armenian’s tossed knife. Grasping it in hands held behind his back, working by feel alone, he managed to manipulate the blade into the open position and began sawing at the zip ties binding his wrists. The knife was sharp; it took only two strokes and his hands were free. He cut his feet loose, belly crawled a few feet across the floor to where the Armenian’s gun had come to rest against a table leg, and seized it.
Hassan perceived movement to his left, but his eye was swollen shut on that side. Turning his head, he saw the Crow slowly getting back to his feet. Hassan rolled left, toward the threat rather than away, and came to his feet with his gun aimed directly at the left eye of the Crow, with whom he stood face to face.
The Crow leaned to one side to take the weight off his injured hip, his own gun trained on Hassan’s heart. Hassan pivoted and seized the Crow’s wrist, pushing the assassin’s gun off to the side while keeping his own aimed at the man’s head. The Crow in turn seized Hassan’s wrist and fought to move it away from himself. The two stood no more than an arm’s length apart. The room had grown so quiet that Hassan could hear the blood dripping from the Crow’s hip onto the cement floor.
“Shoot him!” Jamilah cried.
But I’ve taken a vow, Hassan thought. I have vowed not to kill. I have not killed a man since I became Muslim.
Hassan felt the Crow’s muscles trembling. The assassin was simply not as strong as him, and the bullet in the man’s hip obviously impeded his ability to fight. Even as the Crow struggled with Hassan, he revealed no indication of the pain he must be experiencing. His pale green eyes were as icy and inhuman as ever.
Hassan had vowed not to kill, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hurt this #%&. He yielded to the pressure the Crow was exerting on his gun hand, and brought his elbow forward, clubbing the Crow in the temple. The assassin staggered but remained standing, still wrestling to point his gun at Hassan.
“That’s for Jamilah,” Hassan snarled. He struck again, driving the point of his elbow into the man’s chin. “It’s not so easy when someone fights back, is it?”
At this close distance Hassan could hear the Crow’’s ragged breath and see the beaded sweat on his cheeks. He drew his elbow back for another blow – and his gaze lighted upon the small, faded scar on the assassin’s forehead.
Hassan stared at it. His eyes flicked to the Crow’s glacial green irises, then back to the thumbnail-sized scar, shaped like a crescent moon. Tumblers began to fall in Hassan’s head, great and terrible tumblers from a lock the size of a planet. The scar – BOOM. The pale green eyes – BOOM. The blonde hair – BOOM. The difficulty breathing – BOOM. The scar – BOOM. The tumblers fell, and the mental lock fell open.
The truth that rose in Hassan’s mind was too terrible to contemplate.
“Shoot him, Hassan!” Jamilah shouted again, but her voice came from a great distance, having no more effect than the ripples from a pebble dropped into the sea.
Hassan’s eyes traveled once again to the scar. It was impossible. Impossible! The dead did not come back to life. And even if Hassan could have been deceived in that regard, how could a man be perverted in such a way, his fundamental character changed, his memory seemingly erased? And how could those who loved him somehow fail to perceive this distortion of reality itself? It was impossible!
But it was real. He could not deny it. His heart knew. The man standing before him, fighting to shoot him in the heart, was Charlie.
Hassan remembered the day when his parents were murdered, and his father’s last words as he lay dying: “Take care of Charlie.” He remembered his dream the other night, and his father saying, “You are pure and beautiful in my eyes. I love you. Allah is still with you.”
And now here was Charlie in the flesh, changed and twisted, but still his brother, like an unasked-for miracle. What would his father think of him if he hurt Charlie? Whatever Charlie had become, Hassan could never harm him, not even if it meant dying himself. I abandoned him, he thought. I never even looked for him. He was alive, and I never looked for him. What has he been through? What did they do to him?
Understanding flared in his mind like a dead tree being struck by lightning. This was the meaning of his tattoo. The snake eating its own tail. One brother, taken away at a tender age and trained to torture and kill. The other sent into war. The two set on a collision path – programmed missiles with the word Haddad written on the casings, describing both the missiles and the targets. Boulos planned this from the beginning. It was a private joke, a long con, karma in reverse. It was Boulos’ ultimate revenge on Kamal Haddad, the envied elder brother.
Hassan did not care what happened to himself. He did not think about Jamilah. All conscious thought was driven from his mind. There was nothing in his head but the word, “Charlie”, repeating like an endless echo. He opened his hand and let the Armenian’s gun clatter to the floor. He stepped back and whispered the name. “Charlie?”
The assassin responded by aiming his gun once again at Hassan’s heart. Hassan, with his trained senses, saw the Crow’s finger tighten on the trigger.
“Don’t you know me?” Hassan whispered. “Charlie. Don’t you know who you are?”
The Crow fired. Hassan saw the trigger depress and he ghosted. It was simply instinctive. Even in his tormented mental state, even with all his aches and wounds, and even at this close range, he had practiced this movement so many thousands of times, so obsessively, that he succeeded. The Crow missed.
Hassan did not counterattack, however. He stood motionless, still staring at Charlie’s face. He could not absorb it. Nothing seemed to make sense.
The assassin lowered his weapon slightly and stared. “How did you do that? Only a Kopis can do that.”
“I…” Hassan was at a loss for words. How could this be Charlie? “I saw Mr. Black do it,” he said finally. “Do you remember him? He was Boulos’ bodyguard. Charlie, don’t you know who I am? What did they do to you? Where did you go? I didn’t know, Charlie, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
Hassan felt his chest rising and falling convulsively, as if he were about to break into sobs. He saw confusion on the Crow’s face. Was there a trace of doubt there? A flash of recognition?
Then it was gone. The Crow’s face twisted into a mask of hatred. “What kind of nonsense is this? Do you think such juvenile psychological tricks will work on a Kopis?”
“Charlie, no. Charlie, I’m your -”
“Stop!” His icy composure gone, his face twisted with rage, the Crow aimed his gun at Hassan’s leg and pulled the trigger. Bang! Hassan saw it coming, saw the intent and the depression of the trigger, but did not attempt to ghost. He was too lost in a turbulent mixture of anguish, guilt, confusion and joy.
The bullet tore into his inner thigh and embedded itself deep in his leg. The pain was shocking and intense, worse than any he had experienced, even when he had been shot in the chest so many years ago. Instantly his leg began to spurt blood in gouts. The bullet must have torn out a chunk of his femoral artery. He collapsed to the ground, then rolled onto his side as something dug painfully into the back of his shoulder.
In a voice as loud as any warrior of old, Jamilah cried, “Allaaaaaaaaahh!” She charged the Crow, the room’s only chair held high above her head.
Too late. The Crow spun toward her and his gun barked loudly as he fired almost point blank into her belly. Hassan did not understand what happened next. The Crow must have missed, because Jamilah did not stop. With a look of wide-eyed fury, she brought the chair crashing down upon the Crow’s head with all her might. The assassin dropped like an anchor, unconscious, his head striking the ground with a thud.
Hassan knew he was dying. Every time his heart beat, the wound in his leg spurted a fountain of blood. The femoral artery was one of the largest in the human body. Already he felt his head growing light and his thoughts dull. He tried to unzip his windbreaker, thinking he could use it to tie off the leg, but his hands felt clumsy and he could not get the zipper down.
Jamilah came to him, her face streaked with blood, ash and water from the sprinklers, and deeply pale underneath it all. The wound in her cheek looked terrible. Her wet hair had turned frizzy and stuck out wildly.
She stared in shock at the blood fountaining from Hassan’s leg.
“Hassan, oh my God! What do I do? Hassan!”
Hassan was having a hard time thinking. It was not only the blood loss, though that was certainly pushing him to the edge of unconsciousness. Nor was it the accumulated trauma of the injuries he had suffered in the last few days, or the weariness that went down to his bones. No, it was the emotional shock that hammered his brain and soul. He was so deeply confused, so tired. He no longer knew what was true. Was Lena alive or dead? Had he abandoned her and his own child? Was this soulless creature Charlie? Could it be? And was he dead now – again – or still alive?
It was too much. It was easier to let it all go, and to sink down into the darkness of sleep. Maybe his father would be waiting. Maybe all the people he’d lost would gather to greet him, and it would not be a nightmare like it had been so many years ago in the hostel in Istanbul, but a gift. Exhaustion pulled at him like an anchor weight. Maybe it was time to finally let go.